Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents as a Pragmatic Work

download print

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 3407 |

Pages: 7|

18 min read

Published: Jul 17, 2018

Words: 3407|Pages: 7|18 min read

Published: Jul 17, 2018

Civilization and its Discontents, is, in great part, a philosophical treatise, in which Freud tries to replace a metaphysical, idealistic framework with a psychological one. He does so by using a performative, therapeutic style of argumentation, in which he encourages the reader to analyze philosophical problems in the context of his daily life, and realize that Freud's psychoanalytic explanations fit more closely with his own experience than metaphysical constructions. By examining the problems in this way, Freud wishes to show that nothing can be learned about man by appealing to abstraction, and that this type of thinking is not only illogical, but one of the main problems with civilization, keeping men from attaining greater happiness. However, Freud also asserts that certain metaphysical constructions are necessary for men to remain happy and bound together in society. So by exposing the root of every appeal to man's higher nature, it seems that psychoanalysis is being destructive, if people were to accept what he says, to make everything unconscious conscious, how would they deal with the problems of civilization?

'Why Violent Video Games Shouldn't Be Banned'?

Civilization and its Discontents is the most philosophical of Freud's works. He combines many of his previous ideas to produce a commentary on civilization and life in general, normally the realm of philosophers. Freud's past works hinted at and even addressed some philosophical problems, but here he offers an overview of life based on his extensive psychoanalytic findings. Because Freud wants to address philosophical and existential problems, the book sounds like a work of philosophy. He discusses such issues as religion, aesthetics, ethics, the purpose of life, civilization versus a state of nature, and problems with civilization. Freud uses some logic, makes reference to Schiller, and uses the term Fate in some of his explanations, such as when he expands the notion that an infant is dependant on the father into the idea that the feeling of helplessness is "permanently sustained by fear of the superior power of Fate" (20).

Thus there is no doubt that Freud wishes to address the plight of mankind, and is not adverse to using logic, literature, poetry, or romantic language to convey his ideas. However Freud wishes to distinguish himself from past theologians, philosophers, poets, novelists, and leaders who may have used similar language in framing their arguments. He brings up philosophical problems as stated by these philosophers in order to address them differently from many of these past thinkers. Freud's style of argumentation, in keeping with his ideas, avoids appeal to abstract logic and ideals, man's higher nature, the soul, God, and the perfectability of man, that is, everything that separates man from animal, general metaphysical claims. Instead, his style of argumentation stands in relation to metaphysical argumentation much as Wittgenstein's does. Wittgenstein, in order to make sense of philosophical problems, looks at the words on which the problems are centered as they are used in everyday language, not as they are idealized and pushed into abstraction by philosophical reasoning. Wittgenstein appeals to the reader to analyze words as they use them in their daily lives, and in that way make sense of philosophical problems surrounding their use. Freud uses a similar method which I will characterize as performative and therapeutic. He does not examine behavior, institutions, culture or civilization in an abstract or ideal light, but as they exist in reality. The text is performative because he asks the reader to appeal to his own commonsense, past experience, and emotional and behavioral patterns in addressing philosophical questions, and it is therapeutic because he asks them to analyze themselves in the process. For example, he questions the order "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." He proposes that the reader: adopt a nave attitude towards it, as though we were hearing it for the first time; we shall be unable then to suppress a feeling of surprise and bewilderment. Why should we do it? What good will it do us? But above all, how shall we achieve it? How can it be possible? My love is something valuable to me which I ought not to throw away without reflection. It imposes duties on me for whose fulfillment I must be ready to make sacrifices. If I love someone, he must deserve it in some way? (65-66)

He then expands the idea to explain why, from a psychoanalytic standpoint, this feeling of surprise is in fact validated by psychology. (we only love someone because they represent our ego or ego-ideal). He continues to use this method when he tells the reader that "the instinct to aggression, which we can detect in ourselves and justly assume to be present in others, is the factor which disturbs our relations with our neighbour?" (69) He then goes on to give examples throughout history in which this instinct was manifest. He attempts to further validate and broaden this method by stating at the beginning of two chapters that what he had just argued was simply common knowledge, and that he had wasted paper and ink. This was probably not entirely true, but it serves to strengthen the reader's convictions that what he has read was intuitive.

Thus Freud uses a performative, therapeutic method because it is particularly appropriate for a psychological framework. He wishes to show people that his psychoanalytic observations stem from real-life, commonsense situations. However, he also argues in this way in order to bring philosophy down to earth, to get rid of metaphysical constructions and abstract reasoning in order to discover what is "really" happening. His work is a fairly blatant critique of religion and certain types of philosophy, such as works by Descartes or Rousseau, political ideology, and metaphysics. He delivers a sharp attack on philosophy when he states that:

The question of the purpose of human life has been raised countless times; it has never yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one? It looks, on the contrary as though on had a right to dismiss the question, for it seems to derive from the human presumptuousness, other manifestations of which are already familiar to us. Nobody talks about the purpose of the life of animals? Once again, only religion can answer the question of the purpose of life. One can hardly be wrong in concluding that the idea of life having a purpose stands and falls with the religious system (24).

Although he characterizes the idea as religious, we can surely expand it to the realm of philosophers and metaphysicists, who are also concerned with this problem. But Freud dismisses it, not entertaining for one moment the idea that humans are essentially different from animals. His answer to the "less ambitious question of what men themselves show by their behaviour to be the purpose and intention of their lives" is, of course, the pursuit of happiness. This claim nicely summarizes Freud's method of argumentation, his solution to the problem framed with "The answer can hardly be in doubt," and the reader intuitively agreeing. He also criticizes political idealism, especially communism, which rely on the idea of man's basic goodness and ignore the instinct toward aggression. He states that "Aggressiveness was not created by property. It reigned without limit in primitive times, and it already shows itself in the nursery almost before property has given up its primal, anal form" (70-71).

Freud criticizes the use of metaphysics and idealism to explain psychological phenomena, even those which seem more mysterious, a psychological explanation not so obvious or intuitive. For example, he begins by dislodging the very feeling of spirituality (that oceanic feeling) by denying its divine origin. He explains that the feeling comes from an incomplete separation of the self from the rest of the world, left over from infancy when one does not understand that the ego is separate from it's objects. Furthermore, on page 22 he criticizes the notion of God as an "enormously exalted father," and religion as being "patently infantile and "foreign to reality." He reduces love to the search for pleasure in a longstanding sexual relationship, and spiritual love as the love for someone who represents your ego-ideal. Even the superego, which Freud utilized in an earlier work to prove that psychoanalysis recognized man's higher nature, his greater capacity for good, is here revealed as nothing more than the internalized prohibitions of the parents and authority figures and the aggressive instinct turned inwards. Finally, he characterizes art and intellectual work as sublimations of sexual energy. Going even farther, he remarks that "such satisfactions seem finer and higher.' But their intensity is mild as compared with that derived from the sating of crude and primary instinctual impulses; it does not convulse our physical being" (30).

Thus he attempts to turn our current mode of thought on its head, associating what are normally considered the most worthwhile activities with lower modes of pleasure, and those things usually considered more base, less inwardly rewarding, with the highest degree of satisfaction possible. He does so in order to make the statement that although humans may feel the need to look to higher forces in order to explain life, this only does humanity a disservice. We continue to believe that there must be something more, that we must look higher in order to discover the "truth." However, Freud believes that this is put to us by an overly demanding superego which tells us that we must separate ourselves from animals and look beyond ourselves for meaning. He believes that the constant appeal to the perfectability of man and necessity to strive for a psychologically constructed ideal keeps men particularly unhappy and repressed, their superego overly aggressive and demanding. According to Freud, if we could conquer the tendency towards "faint-heartedness" and be willing to accept the true, psychoanalytic origin of behavior, we might not blame ourselves so harshly for less than pure impulses, and live a happier, more natural life.

However, it seems that this appeal can only go so far. If we wish to remain in civilization, Freud suggests that some metaphysical, higher order constructions are necessary. For Freud does not suggest that we go back to a state of nature, although "the feeling of happiness derived from the satisfaction of a wild instinctual impulse untamed by the ego is incomparably more intense than that derived from sating an instinct that has been tamed" (29), because in this state only a chosen few would be able to experience this type of happiness (the rest presumably miserable and oppressed), and no one would feel secure (73). In order to retain this civilization, Freud almost suggests that we must accept the illusion that he spends so much time disproving and even deriding. For,

No feature, however, seems better to characterize civilization than its esteem and encouragement of man's higher mental activities, his intellectual, scientific and artistic achievements, and the leading role that it assigns to ideas in human life. Foremost among those ideas are the religious systems. Next come the speculations of philosophy; and finally what might be called man's 'ideals', his ideas of a possible perfection of individuals, or of peoples or of the whole of humanity (47).

These ideas, although they stem from repression and sublimation of instinct, are apparently inseparable from society. Indeed, Freud has often made references to repression as being the main vehicle of society, almost coinciding with it, without which it would be impossible.

Thus it seems that within society, we need metaphysical constructions for two reasons: first, to bind people together and keep them harmonious within the society, and secondly, to allow for a greater degree of happiness in a situation where instincts are repressed. The most obvious example of the first case is the superego. Although this is not, in itself, a metaphysical construction, it is responsible for creating and upholding moral codes, and through repression, causes the need for sublimation of instinct. It is this construction that gives rise to commandments like "love thy neighbor," and "love thy enemy." Freud characterizes the superego as a sense of guilt, which originally arose out of fear of loss of love from parent-figures, and then, later in life, changes to an internalization of the parents' demands. This sense of guilt, or conscience, keeps us from giving voice to instincts which are considered incompatible with society. People engage in such activities as art, music, and intellectual work as a substitute for satisfaction of an instinct which the superego prohibits. It seems that without this sense of guilt, people would feel no moral obligation without fear of punishment. However, the superego ensures that people believe that the moral obligation stems from man's "higher" nature, and that intellectual activities are objectively better than instinctual ones.

In addition, the idea of justice, that there exists a right of the community over the individual, stems from the attempt to exercise control over the individual, so that no one person can have free reign of their instincts, and exert power over others through "brute force." This is an important prerequisite for civilization, and it is articulated in terms of a democratic ideal, a societal moral (49). Finally, the notion that we should love and respect those around us comes from society's constant need to bind its members together with aim-inhibited libido, in order to combat the aggressive instinct which threatens to pull people apart. This is even the reason for sexual prohibitions, society needs to take libidinal energy that would normally go towards individual sexual satisfaction and redirect it to society as a whole (69).

In the second case, metaphysical constructions, or "illusions," often help people cope in a society where powerful instincts must be repressed. He states that "each one of us behaves in some one respect like a paranoic, corrects some aspect of the world which is unbearable to him by the construction of a wish and introduces this delusion into reality? The religions of mankind must be classed among the mass-delusions of this kind" (32). He includes art among these illusions, and of course religion. He talks about how religion ensures against suffering by "imposing equally on everyone its own path to the acquistion of happiness and protection from suffering" and "succeeds in sparing many people an individual neurosis" (36).

Thus, in many cases, Freud shows the need for constructions of higher ideals immediately after proving these ideals delusional--such as when he shows the absurdity of "loving thy neighbor," and feeling an indiscriminate love for mankind, and then goes on to discuss the necessity of this libidinal tie for combating the death instinct. So it seems that although Freud is committed to exposing the roots of metaphysical claims, and revealing the social origins of supposed absolutes, he also sees the necessity for upholding certain delusions and substitutions. Although these types of claims disregard the true origin of human motivation, they are indispensable for the harmony of societal live. Thus, Freud is left with a dilemma: as a scientist and a philosopher, he is committed to uncovering truths and condemning illusion. But as a psychologist, he is concerned with human happiness and the betterment of society. But even from the point of view of a psychologist, Freud knows that the happiness of the individual would be greatly increased if he were able to undo the repression of society and give voice to his instincts, however, he might also suffer from lack of protecting illusions. And if everyone were to act in this manner, the fabric of society would fall apart.

So how is Freud to conduct his practice? If psychoanalysis is concerned with making all that is unconscious conscious, how will Freud uphold certain societal restrictions which he views as necessary repression in the individual? Does he maintain certain delusions in his patients? For "Integration in, or adaptation to, a human community appears as a scarcely avoidable condition which must be fulfilled before this aim of happiness can be achieved. If it could done without that condition, it would perhaps be preferable." However, Freud also states that in a community, "the aim of happiness is still there, but it is pushed into the background" (105). But as a psychologist, Freud is devoted to increasing this happiness as much as possible. Thus it seems that his aim, increasing individual happiness, is inherently divergent from that of a community, but that, in the long run, civilization is a necessary evil for the greater good.

So "the two urges, the one towards personal happiness and the other towards union with other human beings must struggle with each other in every individual" (106). Where does Freud stand in this struggle? He devotes most of the book to revealing the falsity of societal appeals to the "higher" nature of man, a vehicle by which we ultimately encourage man to act altruistically rather than egoistically. Freud is devoted to exposing this type of illusion, but reluctantly concedes that it may be necessary for the human community. Indeed, it seems that he is greatly in favor of society when he states that civilization represents the eternal struggle between Eros and Thanatos, with society attempting to utilize Eros in order to save the human species from the destruction of the aggressive instinct (112).

However, Freud's constant criticism of philosophical appeals to the perfectability of man and his capacity for morality shows that he is greatly conflicted about the aims of society. Freud's assertion that "it is very far from my intention to express an opinion upon the value of human civilization" (110), does not ring true. Although he wavers on these judgements of value, they are quite evident. Often it seems that Freud wishes to dispense with society, and even takes a Nietzschean stance at times, like when he states that "Only the weaklings have submitted to such an extensive encroachment upon their sexual freedom, and stronger natures have only done so subject to a compensatory condition" (61). These prohibitions on sexual freedom, which Freud admits may be necessary for the redirection of libido to societal aims, are here dismissed as unjust. It seems that in this passage Freud is glorifying the man who ignores society's decrees and lives by his instinct, stronger natures implicitly defined as those who engage in bodily, instinctual activities rather than sublimated ones.

Freud admits that " I have not the courage to rise up before my fellow-men as a prophet, and I bow to their reproach that I can offer them no consolation." However, immediately preceding this statement he notes that "the objection can be made, to the effect that in the history of mankind, trends such as these, which were considered insurmountable, have often been thrown aside and replaced by other trends." He is referring to the "tendencies to a restriction of sexual life" and the "institution of a humanitarian ideal" (111). Thus, in announcing his lack of courage, Freud is saying that although he dislikes appeal to man's higher nature, he is afraid to dispense with it altogether. But it seems that this is what he wants to do: throughout the book he concentrates on exposing the illusion of such a framework. And now he states that perhaps such an illusion is not necessary for the continuance of civilization--perhaps we can replace these constructions with different, less oppressive ones. But again, Freud is left with a dilemma. Any new construction would necessarily involve the restriction of some instincts and the shift from an egoistic mode of life to an altruistic one, for how else could humans live harmoniously together in a society?

Get a custom paper now from our expert writers.

Thus, in Civilization and its Discontents, Freud presents himself with the problem of how far psychoanalysis is to go. On one hand, it aims at removing the oppressive influence of the superego, absolving people from a sense of guilt. It operates from the assumption that everything in our mental life is determined, and does not pass moral judgement. But how far is Freud justified in going in releasing people from the demands of the superego? Freud knows that our animalistic instincts are natural and should be allowed voice, if not free reign, for maximum individual happiness that is, we should stop fooling ourselves about the roots of our motivation. However, he is also unsure what would become of civilization if we got rid of metaphysical constructions. Would we build new, better ones, or would the glue that is holding together the tenuous fabric of society deteriorate, and Thanatos finally destroy the human species?

Image of Dr. Oliver Johnson
This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Oliver Johnson

Cite this Essay

Freud’s Civilization And Its Discontents As A Pragmatic Work. (2018, May 26). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from
“Freud’s Civilization And Its Discontents As A Pragmatic Work.” GradesFixer, 26 May 2018,
Freud’s Civilization And Its Discontents As A Pragmatic Work. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 13 Apr. 2024].
Freud’s Civilization And Its Discontents As A Pragmatic Work [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 May 26 [cited 2024 Apr 13]. Available from:
Keep in mind: This sample was shared by another student.
  • 450+ experts on 30 subjects ready to help
  • Custom essay delivered in as few as 3 hours
Write my essay

Still can’t find what you need?

Browse our vast selection of original essay samples, each expertly formatted and styled


Where do you want us to send this sample?

    By clicking “Continue”, you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy.


    Be careful. This essay is not unique

    This essay was donated by a student and is likely to have been used and submitted before

    Download this Sample

    Free samples may contain mistakes and not unique parts


    Sorry, we could not paraphrase this essay. Our professional writers can rewrite it and get you a unique paper.



    Please check your inbox.

    We can write you a custom essay that will follow your exact instructions and meet the deadlines. Let's fix your grades together!


    Get Your
    Personalized Essay in 3 Hours or Less!

    We can help you get a better grade and deliver your task on time!
    • Instructions Followed To The Letter
    • Deadlines Met At Every Stage
    • Unique And Plagiarism Free
    Order your paper now